Greek Cottage Madness 2: Elementary Greek

When I bought my house—wearing my gold (or obsidian) tinted glasses—I had a smattering of Greek.

It was the smallest smattering possible, while still remaining language; possibly there is a term for this quantity in physics.

The following was my entire vocabulary:
oréa and kalá.

With a broad inclination towards trying to please, these two words had served me well for years.
Oréa – beautiful (views, houses, meals, new babies, hats, boats) and kalá – fine, good. Kalá Pascha – happy Easter. I could say please – parakaló – and thank you – efaristó – and yiá sou or yiá sas – hello.

The view from my cottage

For a while I confidently asked for one jug of wine or loaf of bread until the discovery that this was gendered and declined made me abandon it. I knew ávrio – tomorrow. Within weeks of house ownership and once workmen were involved, I learned a more sinister phrase – métavrio – sometime (possibly a very long time) after tomorrow.

And another:
káthika – I am lost.

I’d actually read Classics at university, and although my Ancient Greek was even more limited than my modern, and there would be little call for loosing my oxen from the stall or any mangling with a burning spear, the classical texts had left me with the word for sea –
thalassa – and death – thánatos. Sometimes I got these the wrong way round, gaining a certain reputation for melancholy.

Generally I hoped
sea would come in handy. Though the other was a possibility if I ever touched the green–brown liquid, with its tiny whip–like water–life, which trickled from the taps, or trod on one of the needles that lay around the place formerly called garden.

But I could read Greek letters so at least the words around me could be read if not comprehended. I learned the word for bill, despite the universally understood wiggling of finger and thumb across an imaginary account.
Logariasmó – well, it was irresistible. By now I was also stuck in that infuriating state of understanding quite a lot but being able to contribute nothing.

Me: (brightly) Yia sas.

Greek interlocutor: And how are you getting on in your new home? I hope you have not been bothered by the former owner’s associates? Perhaps the priest could bless the house?

Me: (gesturing over the island) beautiful sea.

Greek builder. I will need to dig at least one trench twenty metres in length across your terrace if we are to find your septic tank which is backing up and causing the very bad smell. This will take two months and the labour of both my cousins. We will start … metávrio.

Me: … kalá. Fine.

At the end of my first season I returned to England with a persistent stomach bug. Weeks later it was identified as giardiasis. A notifiable disease, caught from protozoa in contaminated water, and which brought the public health authorities round. (The next year it was to be septicaemia).

But before I’d left an old Greek friend had arranged for every broken window to be mended and the inside of entire house to be whitewashed top to bottom. The old cabinet in which Greek brides once placed their bridal wreath over the bedroom door was still in place – the ghost shadow of the circlet still there, some dead leaves under it.

The thicket of weeds was strimmed; insects fled in a cloud. I had cleared the rubbish.

Suddenly the place had possibilities again. I had four lemon trees, with an almost freakish burden of fragrant lemons. Eleven olive trees of great age, two orange trees with fruit the consistency of loofahs and three plum trees, one of which fell over in the third winter and revealed the septic tank.

A near neighbour came to see the cleaning up. He gazed out of the window.

‘Why don’t you trim the tops of your trees?’ he said. ‘For the view.’

‘kalá’, I said, conversationally.

The next time I returned they had been trimmed and there to my astonishment was a view – of silver green olive groves and the sea stretching away as far as the tip of Corfu. On a ridge cypresses stood like sentinels against the setting sun and on a distant promontory was a small lighthouse, already casting a beam into the dusk. It was a view of the Ionian sea that I had never for a moment realised I had.

On one side my handsome neighbour, who drove around in a magnificent 1944 US Army jeep, was playing a bouzouki and singing along with it.

My other neighbour was shrieking at her goats.

‘ Thalassa!’ I said, ‘Oréa!’ And meant it.
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